Wojo: Patriots hand Lions cold glimpse of reality

Bob Wojnowski
The Patriots' Chris Hogan makes a touchdown reception with the Lions' Kevin Lawson defending in the first quarter.

Detroit — For the Lions, this wasn’t a dress rehearsal. In the first half, it was an undress rehearsal.

The Patriots came in and did what they do, which is to expose an opponent’s every weakness, whether the game matters or not. The Lions weren’t ready for this, and although it’s only one preseason game against the Super Bowl champs, they didn’t look ready for much of anything.

The Lions’ backups rallied in the second half behind Jake Rudock and nearly pulled it out Friday night, but the final score — 30-28, Patriots — is immaterial. The third exhibition is supposed to be the closest approximation of reality, and it was a sobering one for the Lions. When Tom Brady wasn’t carving them up, they carved themselves up with penalties and assorted gaffes. New England effortlessly rolled to a 24-0 lead before Matthew Stafford finally connected with Marvin Jones for a 23-yard score late in the first half.

Brady played six possessions, which seemed unusually cruel by Bill Belichick. Surely he could’ve ducked out earlier and headed to Ann Arbor, no? Brady completed 12 of 15 passes for 174 yards and two touchdowns, before Glover Quin finally halted the nonsense with an interception.

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After smothering weak foes in their first two games, the Lions needed a test, and oh boy did they get one. The defense that had allowed only one touchdown and collected eight sacks against the Colts and Jets was completely lost against the Patriots’ up-tempo attack.

None of this was a surprise, although the scope of the mismatch was profound. Brady had so much time to stand in the pocket, he could take a moment to admire himself in the giant new Ford Field videoboards. All the fears about the Lions’ defense and feeble pass rush were on graphic display.

“I told you guys this team was gonna challenge us in every single way, so you get a real good barometer of where you are,” Jim Caldwell said. “If you’re gonna be a real good team in this league, there’s some things you’re gonna have to deal with consistently. And they’re gonna show them to you, and attack you in so many different ways. I think we learned some things. We know exactly what we have to work on.”

Slow down, you’re moving way too fast

The Patriots rolled 75 yards on their first drive, capped by Brady’s 7-yard pass to Chris Hogan. After a Golden Tate fumble, they needed one play to score again, another perfect Brady strike to Hogan for 32 yards. By the time the Patriots were making it 21-0 with an easy 1-yard stroll by Mike Gillislee, the crowd actually was mustering the energy to boo.

The Patriots took their 24-7 lead to halftime before backups took over, and somewhere in the stadium, GM Bob Quinn had to be watching his former team wistfully. To be fair, no one should’ve gotten giddy with the first two victories, and the season shouldn’t be cancelled after this. But some of the Lions’ obvious issues were made more obvious by the opponent.

Brady exploited middle linebacker Jarrad Davis, although the rookie did record eight first-half tackles. He admitted it was difficult to keep up.

“It’s the fastest pace I’ve seen,” Davis said. “They came out and knew exactly what to do, it was like clockwork.”

And like clockwork, the Lions might have lost another defensive player, as linebacker Tahir Whitehead left with a knee injury. There was sloppiness all around. Nevin Lawson and Quandre Diggs committed penalties in the secondary, and ends Cornelius Washington, Anthony Zettel and Akeem Spence didn’t generate any pressure. The loss of last year’s leading sacker, Kerry Hyder Jr., for the season with an Achilles injury is still problematic.

Things might look different when Ziggy Ansah returns from an injury that has sidelined him the entire training camp, but nobody is certain when that will be. In the meantime, the Lions have to find something, somewhere.

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They knew this would be a much stiffer test than the quarterback stiffs — Scott Tolzien, Christian Hackenberg — they faced in the first two games. In that way, it was revealing, although painfully revealing, as the Lions gained a better idea of where they are.

Frankly, they are about where we thought they’d be, better than the bad teams, not nearly as good as the best teams. Stafford kept playing into the third quarter Friday night and moved the team, completing 15 of 22 for 190 yards. Ameer Abdullah showed a couple impressive bursts and finished with 60 yards on 13 carries. If you’re hunting for bright spots among the backups, Rudock and running back Dwayne Washington played well, as the Lions rallied to take a 28-24 lead.

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The Patriots pulled it out with a pair of Stephen Gostkowski field goals, including a 45-yarder with two seconds left. This was a reality check for the Lions, but there’s no need to make it larger than that. Many believe the Patriots could go undefeated this season, and they weren’t messing around in the first half. They did mess around in the second half, and the Lions probably appreciated that.

There’s one more inconsequential practice game before the season opener against the Cardinals at Ford Field, and if the Lions weren’t fully aware of their weaknesses, especially on defense, they are now. Brady and the Patriots are pretty good at providing enlightenment.